Antic Disposition certainly know how to make a good first impression. Temple Church, their home for the next two weeks, is another majestic, beautiful and powerfully historic setting for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – and brings to an end their most recent tour of some of the UK’s most stunning cathedrals.
Fortunately, the awe-inspiring venue is more than matched by the quality of the show, which is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Based on the probably completely untrue history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the play recounts his bloody path to the throne as he gradually eliminates every other heir in his way, before being defeated at Bosworth Field by the future King Henry VII.
This modern interpretation reimagines the royal family and their entourage as well-heeled city types, and even without the little topical details – which include a comedy mayor called Boris, and a competitive handshake Donald Trump would be proud of – the point being made is clear. Our leaders may no longer send each other to the executioner’s block, but the ruthlessness of those who seek power for their own ends is just as dangerous today as it was 500 years ago.
At the head of a fantastic cast is Toby Manley as the murderous monarch, in a performance so charming that it’s easy to see how he keeps getting his way. Watching him, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock; he plays his part so well that you can forget how evil he actually is – if not for the occasional furious outbursts that expose the crazed ambition lurking within. And in case that doesn’t do the job, a glance down the aisle reveals a silent army of vengeful ghosts, as each of Richard’s victims rises from the grave to take his or her place and wait for an opportunity to have their revenge.
This simple yet powerfully effective device from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero not only helps keep track of the rising body count, but also contributes to the play’s sense of impending doom as we build towards a spine-tingling climax. And they’re not alone, as Louise Templeton’s Queen Margaret, draped in the flag of her dead husband and son’s royal house, appears regularly on stage like Hamlet’s ghost to ensure justice is done.
Perhaps surprisingly in a play so full of violence, there’s also a lot of humour, in the dramatic, semi-hysterical posturing of Joe Eyre’s Buckingham, who could be mistaken for a radical religious preacher as he makes the speech that secures Richard’s place on the throne. And Robert Nairne’s Catesby, who’s transformed for this production into a no-nonsense security man, enjoys some fun interaction with the audience as he hands out flags for the young princes’ arrival, before smugly presenting the two moody teenagers with an XBox to keep them quiet.
It’s clear from both the production and the directors’ programme notes that there’s a topical subtext to be found in Antic Disposition’s interpretation of Richard III. But this message is applied subtly enough – for the most part – that anyone who simply wants to see an excellent and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s historical play will find themselves more than satisfied. It takes some doing to put together a performance so gripping that it can distract from such an amazing venue – but while the setting certainly adds atmosphere, the true star of this show is the show itself.
Richard III is at Temple Church until 9th September.